Love as the Basis for Friendship Evangelism

Sergei V. Nikolaev

Russia’s abrupt and flawed transition to a market economy in the early 1990s left many people in the former Soviet Union in greater poverty than they had ever known. Salaries were either not paid or, when paid, were insufficient to buy necessary staples. Many people lost their jobs as previously state-supported industries and institutions lost funding. Life was difficult for most people of the former Soviet Union as they tried to understand and survive in this new world. The United Methodist Church answered the need of the Russian people by providing many shipments of humanitarian aid, volunteers who helped to repair orphanages and Russian Orthodox churches, and other projects. In those hard years in the 1990s, the kindness of United Methodist Christians and their willingness to provide people with their first, free Bible resulted in continuing growth of interest in Methodism. American and Korean United Methodist missionaries also found an eager response as Russians desired to make the acquaintance of their former «enemies.» The answers that many found in their search for meaning encouraged some who had never been to any church to make the United Methodist Church their spiritual home. This resulted in the rapid growth of the church in those years.

In Russia’s United Methodist churches people found hope, not only for the present, but for eternity. Hope was hard to find in those days, with most people despairing of even surviving. The church also provided warmth and fellowship. At that time, when it was difficult to know whom to trust and what to believe, the openness and joy of United Methodist Christians in Russia was especially inviting.

Changed Circumstances

Today, however, more than a decade and a half after the fall of Communism, the situation in Russia has changed drastically. Today, the Russian economy is doing very well, and many people, especially in the larger cities, have confidence that their lives will continue to improve. The Russian Orthodox Church, too, has increased its power and position in Russian society. While many Russians are still atheistic in their beliefs, a significant portion of Russian society has accepted the Russian Orthodox Church as an inherent part of its cultural heritage. Using this claim to heritage, the Russian Orthodox Church has been pushing for harsher legislation against non-Orthodox churches and for mandatory classes in Russian Orthodoxy in public schools.

Defining Proselytism

Another component that makes evangelization a particularly sensitive subject is the charge of the Russian Orthodox Church that virtually any evangelization activity is proselytism. The United Methodist Church, in fact, is evangelizing by reaching out to those who do not attend church and who do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not trying to proselytize Orthodox Christians to another form of Christianity. Methodist theologian William J. Abraham has formulated an understanding of evangelism that is receiving more and more recognition among Russian United Methodists. In his book, The Logic of Evangelism, Abraham calls evangelism a «set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people into the kingdom of God for the first time.» Nonetheless, any evangelistic activities must also be sensitive to the Russian Orthodox Church. All these changes have made the previous methods of evangelization ineffective.

Evangelism at Its Best

The United Methodist Church in Eurasia has recognized the necessity for new approaches to reaching out to people in need of a relationship with Jesus Christ. One creative innovation has been the inauguration of a United Methodist Annual Competition for the Best Evangelism Project. Leaders gifted in the ministry of evangelism share their practices and experiences with pastors and lay leaders in all United Methodist annual conferences in Eurasia, answering their questions, encouraging dialogue, and promoting excellence in evangelism. Thus, the competition aims to lay the groundwork for creating a robust and indigenous culture of evangelism within the church. One outstanding evangelism servant in the past dozen years in Russia was Lydia Mikhailova, a pastor in the Russia United Methodist Church and the first district superintendent of the South Moscow District. She participated in the development of the original idea of the Competition for the Best Evangelism Project. Lydia was in her forties in 1994 when her husband died of cancer, leaving her with two young sons. She certainly was no stranger to trials. Born into a family that had been exiled from Ukraine to the Russian Far North to work in a timber-felling labor camp, Lydia had spent the early years of her life barely able to survive. The family was rehabilitated only after Stalin’s death. Still, the death of her husband sent her into depression. Grief-stricken, Lydia sought solace, which she found when a friend invited her to a church service at the United Methodist Church in Lytkarino, outside Moscow. Blessed by the comfort that only Christ can give, Lydia spent the rest of her life telling others about the good news.

Friendship Evangelism: Despite All Odds

Lydia came to the church through friendship evangelism, and she practiced that method of evangelism whenever she could. She was a «preacher of evangelistic love.» She found many ways to reach people with the gospel. Rather than becoming hardened by her tragic experiences and difficult past or forgetting about it as many try to do, Lydia conquered her past with God’s love. It can be said that love truly triumphed in her life. One outcome of this great love was her work to start a church in the Far North, where her family had once been imprisoned, as an evangelism project from her church in Moscow, where she served as pastor.

Although she died of stomach cancer a little more than ten years after her husband’s death, this decade was one of great joy and great fruit in her Kingdom service. In the two local churches that she pastored during her ministry (the majority of the district superintendents in Eurasia combine their ministry with service as pastors in local churches), as a skillful administrator, Lydia was able to secure buildings for both congregations. This was a great achievement in an extremely expensive Russian real-estate market and an urgent and primary need for each United Methodist congregation. People with broken hearts came to her churches and received healing and a genuine desire to live as people transformed through Christ. Both of her churches grew into two of the strongest in the district.

Even as she lay in the hospital three weeks before her death, she shared the gospel message and read the Bible to the other women in her ward. When she was sent home for her final days, the women cried and begged her not to leave them, so meaningful had been her ministry to them, even in her own time of weakness and disease. Lydia has left her church a powerful legacy. In her memory, the administrative council of the United Methodist Church in Russia established the Lydia Mikhailova Evangelism Fund to encourage the church to continue its emphasis on evangelization.

The East-West Church & Ministry Report Vol. 16, No. 2 — Spring 2008, pp.13-14

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